By Bryson David Hoff
Shakespeare’s poetry, at its best, has a dreamlike quality that has been praised ad nauseam for its beauty and escapist qualities. Because of this lushness, it seems only natural that Midsommer Flight’s annual production of Twelfth Night, presented in the Lincoln Park Conservatory, is shaping up to be something of an annual Christmas tradition, as it returns for its fourth year running.
Shipwrecked in a foreign country, noblewoman Viola (Amanda Forman) disguises herself as a boy and becomes page to Duke Orsino (Robert Hunter Bry) and party to his efforts to woo Olivia (Tarina Bradshaw). Viola’s situation becomes fraught with complications as she develops feelings for Orsino while Olivia becomes smitten with Viola’s male alterego.
Other than possibly As You Like It, Twelfth Night may be Shakespeare’s queerest play, something that Midsommer Flight is clearly mindful of in both their casting and staging. This allows the production clarity of character motivation that is lacking in iterations of the play that are less bold in embracing the themes of identity and sexuality that are so pervasive in the text. There is, for instance, no ambiguity about Antonio’s (Dominick Alesia) feelings for Sebastian (Elliot Carter Cruz), which lends his story a weight not often seen in productions of this text.
As with any Twelfth Night, though, the heavy lifting falls on Viola. Thankfully, Forman, who uses they/them pronouns, is more than equal to the task, playing both Viola’s masculine and feminine sides with a winning earnestness and frantic energy that makes them easy for the audience to pull for. Having seen many exceptional Violas, Forman is perhaps the only one for whom the Caesario persona seems neither forced nor outlandish. That is to say, it never seems implausible that the other characters accept Forman’s disguised Viola as male, meaning the mental energy that a Twelfth Night audience often has to use to accept that neither the Duke nor Olivia can see through the artifice can instead be focused on appreciation of the nuanced interplay of Viola’s desires with her chosen role, something Forman carries off with aplomb. Their performance is worth the trip alone.
Aside from the dynamics of sexual identity, the other major distinguishing factor between Twelfth Night and Shakespeare’s other comedies is the amount of music included in the play, here composed by Elizabeth Rentfro and Alex Mauney, which rides a fine line of homage to the original Elizabethan style combined with a Father John Misty-esque indie folk that is pleasant to listen to and brings an appropriate bitter-sweetness to the proceedings.
The one criticism is that the 100-minute run time is perhaps a hair too long for no intermission to be included, but thankfully the piece is gripping enough that it isn’t as unbearable as it might be otherwise. The excellent performances, clever staging, and beautiful environment makes this a Twelfth Night worth seeing.
Midsommer Flight presents “Twelfth Night” in the Show House Room at the Lincoln Park Conservatory, 2391 N. Stockton Drive, Chicago. More information is found and reservations may be made here